There were many horrors born out of the enslavement of Black bodies. Terror, sexual abuse, mental anguish, despair, and the separation of families are only the tip of the iceberg. Erasure— of history and personhood — are still things that echo through the Black community. However, as filmmaker Margaret Brown’s striking documentary Descendant suggests, our histories and the truth can never stay buried for long.
Descendant begins the search for a slave ship that should have never existed. Just one year before the American Civil War began and 52 years after the International slave trade was outlawed in the United States, a ship named Clotilda arrived on the shores of Alabama. A white plantation owner named Timothy Meaher charted the illegal expedition in a bet that he could evade the law. Clotilda carried 110 African men, women, and children to the Alabama shores before Meaher set the vessel ablaze —determined to erase what he’d done.
Now, 162 years later, the residents of Africatown, Alabama – founded in 1866 by the formally enslaved – are taking back the narrative of their ancestors and demanding accountability.
In Descendant, the ship wreckage is the tip of the iceberg. The film comprises histories passed down to the grios of Africatown, extensive interviews with historians and reporters, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” an account of the life of Cudjo Lewis, the living survivor of the Middle Passage. Brown weaves together the events of the past. She examines how they continue to haunt the residents of Africatown and the surrounding communities in the present.
There is a lot of strength in Descendant. She allows much of what we learn to be told through descendants like Joycelyn Davis and slave wreck diver Kamau Sadiki. The filmmaker also carefully unpacks the nuances of Africatown’s history while examining residents’ tensions with those who have exploited them. Following the discovery of Clotilda, some seem almost gleeful in their desire to profit even further. Moreover, perhaps to showcase the insensitivity of some white people, Brown lingers on an overly enthusiastic National Geographic historian, the diver who first put his hands on the wreckage and a descendant of the ship’s captain William Foster. The latter tried to call his ancestor a “better” enslaver. None of this aided in the film’s power.
What’s most impactful about Descendant is how Brown and the film’s subjects clearly connect the past with the present. Often, people are told to “forget about slavery.” However, the documentary illustrates how the Meaher family continues to thrive in Alabama —off the backs of the labor they used to build their fortune. In contrast, the residents of Africatown are little surrounded by land owned by the state of Alabama and the Meaher family. They are dealing with countless injustices, including health issues due to the toxic industries brought into their community.
Finding the Clotilda is a significant throughline of the film, but Descendant is about much more than that. Using Hurston’s footage from her 1928 interviews with Lewis and VHS interviews captured by folklorist Dr. Kern Jackson from Africatown residents in the ’90s, prove just how urgent and present history is.
Descendant doesn’t presume to know all the answers; following Clotilda’s discovery, Africatown residents and descendants grapple with reparations and next steps. Though their path isn’t certain, Brown makes one thing clear, this time, the descendants will be in charge of what the history books say about them and their ancestors.
With producers such as Barack and Michelle Obama,, Descendant served as the opening night film at the 20th annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. It will debut on Netflix later this year.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.